Side Scroller Sanctuary: A Classic Trilogy Retrospective

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Art by Veronica Vera, Not Enough Rings

This is a retrospective I did of the classic trilogy of Sonic games for SEGABits, celebrating the hedgehog’s 23rd anniversary week last year. I decided to spring (get it?) new life into it, since I was feeling pretty nostalgic today and recently played through these fantastic titles again I remembered how much of a treat they are. Let’s get to straight into it!

Ah, birthdays. The perfect times for parents to get out those old, embarrassing pictures of you when you were a baby. Our spikey blue hero is no exception to this, however his own classic outgoings were never something to be embarrassed about. In fact, many fans still refer to the original trilogy of games as some of the best games the series has made. I’m not far removed from this ideal, and as such I wanted to look back at these old gems of classic gaming, chronologically.

Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)

Filled with the sights of chequered hills, loop-de-loops, and the iconic sound of the SEGA chant on the boot up, the original Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991, setting the stage for a future 23 years of Sonic. So much about this classic has been said already, but it’s worth giving it another run through, right? Let’s look at why this title is so iconic, and how it laid the groundwork for the future.

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Sonic’s well known for his speed, yet this title doesn’t really capitalise on that gimmick during your time with it. A key element with Sonic is that speed is earned as a reward for your skill and mastery of a level, and this really is the title which began that train of thought. Green Hill Zone is easy enough and gives the player plenty of freedom to get used to Sonic’s top speeds and style of level design, but immediately after, Marble Zone punishes you for trying to charge in without thinking.

This isn’t the only zone which forces a player to slow down and plan what their next moves are. The iconic Labyrinth Zone brings Sonic to the speed of snail underwater, all while avoiding deadly enemies and remembering to collect those all important air bubbles to ensure you don’t drown. Fortunately, in between these two platform heavy zones are Spring Yard and Star Light. As long as you’ve mastered rolling by that point, there’s crazy high speed thrills to be had.

Rolling is the key way you’ll be the speed demon this time around. Since the hedgehog has a speed cap on foot, putting yourself into a ball lets you bypass that. This is where the idea of rewarding a player’s mastery of a level comes in – you’ve gotta know what dangers lie ahead and the layout of the acts so you can most efficiently beat the clock and overcome the obstacles in your path. My current best on Green Hill is about 24 seconds.

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To finish the game 100%, you’ll need to defeat the final boss with six Chaos Emeralds in hand. Collecting the emeralds wasn’t much of an easy feat back in the day, especially when you’re going in blinded – the rotating stages could often get frustrating, especially if you didn’t know what you were doing (GOAL? That’s not my goal, that’s the exit!), and accessing them in certain zones was a nightmare (specifically, holding onto 50 rings). More recent versions like the current mobile ports allow you to quit and retry special stages, making it significantly easier on the player. A change I welcome, since it’s totally optional.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a solid title. It’s a little overrated nowadays, but without the iconic ideas it introduced we wouldn’t have its two sequels that built on the ideas and created fantastic experiences. The level design is solid, the visuals for its day were great, you can achieve a great sense of speed and the bosses are nice mix of challenging to simple. If I was going to recommend a version of this game to you, it’d certainly be the rebuilt mobile version, even with the touch screen controls. It’s the best port of this game to date.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)

Jump to a year later, and say hello to Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Building upon its predecessor, Sonic 2 features more zones, more Chaos Emeralds, more bosses, more characters… and is commonly referred to as one of the best titles the Sonic series has ever made. It’s certainly one of the most popular and best selling, and only helped to propel Sonic to further mainstream popularity back in the day.

I think part of what makes Sonic 2 so successful are its zones. Sure we start with the typical green hill-ish zone once more, but immediately after we’re thrown into Chemical Plant, sporting purple water and giant ramps to roll down. Later on down the line there’s an ocean of oil, a bright casino, a chase in the sky… these unique level tropes were fantastic to look at and run through. All of these are enjoyable in their own way, sporting some individual platforming and exploration ideas in all of them. Not all of them live to this standard, but even then they still have some great level design.

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Something that should be noted about Sonic 2 is that the design has shifted to push much more of the “speed” gimmick. You’ll find yourself flying down giant hills and soaring into the air often, and loop-de-loops are common. This makes for some exhilarating moments you feel in control of. This speed focus can also be seen in the inclusion of the brand new move, the Spin Dash, now a staple of the franchise. Revving yourself up and releasing to a top speed is extremely satisfying, and helps to overcome those ramp issues you might have struggled with once before.

This doesn’t mean Sonic 2 is devoid of the platforming that Sonic 1 embraced fully. You’ll still need to slow yourself down at points and slowly make your way through areas. However, I can’t deny that Sonic 2 feels more linear. As long as you’re not playing blind, for most of the game you can comfortably charge forward and not get punished too often – apart from one or two zones. You can make up your mind if this is a strong suit for the hedgehog or not.

Sonic 2’s lowest points for me come in two areas – Metropolis Zone, and the special stages. Metropolis Zone is well known to be Sonic 2’s most difficult stage for good reason. The badniks are the toughest in the game and most cheaply placed, often found in almost unavoidable spots. You’ll find Shellcrackers waiting at the top of high ledges to knock you back down, or running ahead where a Slicer will suddenly appear and throw its twin blades at you. But aside from these guys, there’s platforming blocks with spikes that stick out of them, conveyor belts above lava, gears that you travel across, corkscrews to run up and black platforms that crush you. The corkscrews should be noted as one of the more challenging obstacles since they’re almost always littered with the exploding Asterons who will knock you down to the ground the minute they detect your presence. And the worst part? All of this goes on for three acts, rather than the usual two.

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And anyone who played Sonic 2’s special stages will understand where my pain comes from. Like the previous game, you’ll need 50 rings to access them, however this time it’s via checkpoints via levels. Never assume past the first few zones you’ll get to the special stages without actively trying to keep your rings. The special stages themselves are now iconic, sporting a half pipe design and littered with rings and bombs. Often though it’s difficult to see what’s ahead of you, I feel the design of them tries to confuse you in later stages. There’s no chance you’ll complete all of them blind. It took me many tries on later special stages to get to the end, and remember if you get thrown out you’ll have zero rings and have to collect 50 again. And of course, there’s nothing more frustrating than having the ring count needed and reacting to a sudden bomb in your way, but Tails just isn’t fast enough and you lose out on the goal. It could be just me, but I’ve always found these stages a nightmare, even more than Sonic 1.

Overall, Sonic 2 is a much more enjoyable title than its predecessor to me. It builds on the good of the original and expands on it. The level design gives more freedom for thrilling moments, the spin dash is a smart and satisfying addition to Sonic repertoire, the music is catchier and captures the essence of each zone brilliantly and the visuals look great and really capture the atmosphere of the zones. If you pick it up on mobile platforms, you also get access to the once forgotten Hidden Palace Zone through a certain pit which many remember the misery of…

Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1993/1994)

And finally, we come to the big one. Famous for making use of “lock-on technology” and creating the biggest 2D Sonic game to date, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the true version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. There’s so much more content here and improvements, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles to date still stands as my favourite title in the series, and my most played one too.

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Pushing on from Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles goes on to push more of a mix of high speed sequences and platforming. For me, it’s almost perfectly balanced here. There’ll be times where the hedgehog will do his thing and curl into a ball and zoom across the screen at a thrilling speed, and the game won’t punish you for having that fun. But then it slows down, and you have to methodically make your way through areas. Even the famous water zone Hydrocity contains high speed, water slide based segments. The design of the levels is expansive and feels far more immersive to travel through in general, since all acts and zones have transitions here.

Storytelling is a much bigger thing in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Unlike its predecessors which story was told in the levels themselves (to such a subtle point, you wouldn’t be reprimanded if you didn’t know it existed), this title actively shows the adventure which the speedy blue hero has through effective zone transitions, and events within levels which change their atmosphere (see – Angel Island setting on fire). The story isn’t intrusive, but still pushes you to want to keep moving and defeat Robotnik and his scheme to build the Death Egg. It’s also nice to see the rivalry between Sonic and new character Knuckles build and build to a point where they butt heads, and eventually unite. Seeing the Death Egg rise again above the clouds in Sky Sanctuary Zone feels suitably like a challenge to the player, and works on a great story level also.

The game contains fourteen zones overall, which is a pretty comfortably long adventure. These zones also continue with the unique zone trope ideas, creating a collection of enjoyable levels which never feel like retreads of ones you’ve already been to. What’s even better is that zones can be different from act to act – it might just be visual differences like Mushroom Hill’s seasonal changes throughout the zone or seeing the Death Egg in the background of Launch Base, but certain zones like Sandopolis go from traveling a outside in the desert to being inside a pyramid haunted by ghosts, and Lava Reef goes from being a scorching hot cavern to being a crystal wonderland.

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Alongside the focus of storytelling and unique level tropes, Sonic 3 & Knuckles also contains music unique to each act. This aids the progression idea significantly, but is just downright a pleasure to listen to. Act 2 is commonly a remix of Act 1’s music which feels just different enough to be both recognisable and brand new. It really helps create an atmospheric change too, such as Launch Base Act 2 feeling like a calm before the storm, or Hyrdocity Act 2 feeling like you’ve travelled to the deepest part of the waters. A special exception is Lava Reef Act 2, which completely changes its music style to suit a complete new area, and an idea of a mystery unravelling itself – this area leads to the discovery of Hidden Palace Zone where the prophecy of the Doomsday fight is, and where the Master Emerald lies.

The special stages here are the most enjoyable I’ve played in the series thus far – Blue Spheres is even a little addicting. The idea is to turn all the blue spheres into red, but touching a red sphere kicks you out of the stage. Unlike previously where you had to collect 50 rings, these stages are accessed via hidden giant rings in stages. This encourages the player to explore these large stages high and low. The stages themselves contain I believe the right mix of challenge for those who are blindly going in or are experienced – obviously, if you know these stages well, it’ll be smooth enough sailing to fight against the increasing pace, with only a little pressure kicking in at top speeds in later stages. But a newbie player will feel that pressure each time they enter a new stage. I never found myself wanting to throw my controller in rage even when I was kicked out once or twice on my first tries, it often felt like a mistake on my own fault. Either way, it’s always satisfying to create a square of red spheres and turn them into rings.

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There’s a few other little improvements I want to mention about Sonic 3 & Knuckles too. First off is the ability to have multiple save files which comes with level select, meaning you can pop in to any zone you fancy after you’ve finished. Second run throughs with Super/Hyper Sonic is something you may do often, I know I did. I also enjoy how each character feels just unique enough to want to use all three – Sonic’s has a insta shield which gives momentary protection, but more importantly he can take advantage of the new elemental shield powers which are a lot of fun (my personal favourite is probably the electric shield – double jump plus a ring magnet), Tails’ flight ability is finally usable here and helps out newbie players in difficult area and to find hidden secrets, and Knuckles has his own unique pathways and specifically designed sections (and story!) only he can traverse through. Because of this, replayability is far increased from what was there previously. Finally, I think the game’s multiplayer needs a little shout-out. These aren’t anything much more than races against a friend, but there’s fun to be had and the music found in these levels are hidden gems.

The reason why this title will stand among all other to me within this franchise might be partially down to nostalgia, but everything it does it does so brilliantly to me. It succeeds on a lot of levels – it takes steps visually with the environments, the music is lovely and easy to get addicted to, the level designs feel sprawling and fun to speed through, the story is told non-intrusively but is still surprisingly engaging… it feels it took all the best and worst elements of the previous two and made it all just downright fantastic. All three of these games will always stand on a pillar to me for their impact of the franchise, but this game especially holds a special place in my heart.

What are some of your favourite memories of the classic games? Sound off in the comments below and let us know.

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Symbotic

A video game enthusiast, dog lover and dedicated Netflix user. Would probably spend every day eating pizza and talking about movies quite happily.

16 Comments

  1. i agree totally… even when i like the 3 games…
    Sonic 3 and Knuckles is the one i play the most too…i use to play it with my little brother.. he is Tails and i’m Sonic.. 😀 he helps me to get high places..
    i love all of that game… the final boss is my favourite thing..the music there is so epic..
    and i love also the 2 player zones.. *_*
    definetly my favourite Sonic game..

  2. Nice article. Yeah I still play these games a lot, especially the StealthTax mobile versions.

    What, no mention of Sonic CD? 🙁 Yeah I know CD wasn’t part of the Mega-Drive trilogy, but I still think it deserves a mention.

    Oh and Sonic 3&K was released in 1994 (Sonic 3 on 2/2/1994 and S&K on 18/10/1994) and not in 1993.

  3. My Top 5 Sonic Games:
    1.Sonic 3 & Knuckles
    2.Sonic Adventure 2
    3.Sonic 2
    4.Sonic the Hedgehog (1991)
    5.Sonic Adventure

    1. Pretty solid list, how would I wish Sonic Team released a recent and great Sonic game that rivals any of those titles you mention.

  4. The Sonic trilogy is nearly a perfect trilogy. In sequence it is. But playing 2 and 3&K and then going back to play the first one makes Sonic 1 seem….just not as good. They definitely upped their game (pun fully intended) which each new installment, which is the best habit for making sequels. Always improve, always make the games more exciting.

  5. This has nothing’s to do with the article, but how can you download Sonic Runners? On my App Store, after entering in my password to download it, it says that I need a different password to download! Help!

  6. Great article on the trilogy. Maybe there will be a sequel discussing the red-headed cousins of this line (Sonic CD, Chaotix, both versions of 3D Blast) down the line? maybe do a series on the classic era that includes the GG games and ends with Sonic R, Fighters and Jam, right before Adventure begins.

  7. One of my most favorite things in the classics and maybe even in the series is that in Sonic 2, Sonic could outrun the freakin screen! Like… WTF?? I DON’T EVEN…

    I’m also a fan of Emerald Hill Zone over Green Hill Zone. I feel GHZ is now more iconic because of how often it’s referenced and honestly that doesn’t bother me like it does others cuz it’s the only thing that ties the entire franchise together. But I think Emerald Hill Zone is GHZ’s cool brother with cooler music and overall layout.

    Chemical Plant Zone was a really cool factory-esque stage. Like, Metropolis Zone isn’t a BAD ZONE it’s just difficult and not my taste. But it’s cooler than Scrap Brain Zone in style to me. But Those and Death Egg Zone are really not my preference for that genre. Chemical Plant is one of the ones I actually LIKE though. I also really like Casino Night Zone and Carnival Night Zone. I think Casino Night has more suave though. lol

    Ice Cap Zone is probably one favorite stage in the franchise because I like ice stages. It’s cloudy. It’s snowing but it doesn’t overshadow the ICE and CRYSTAL. It’s like it’s in the middle of no where but it’s a city, a PALACE made by nature. I like the colors and the music. I had no idea that the music was so popular that it’d be one of the most remixed songs in the series and be considered overrated BUT IDC IT’S STILL MY FAVORITE! 8D

  8. I think Knuckles Chaotix & Sonic CD should be on this list. They are the 2 other console Sonic 2D platformers. Knuckles Chaotix should’ve been billed as Sonic the Hedgehog 4. It was amazing. They would’ve sold so many more 32X’s that way. Sonic CD is basically Sonic 1.5 graphically — and musically…I honestly dunno what the hell either country’s team was thinking with the music. It’s all IMO 😀

  9. I think Sonic 3 & Knuckles captures one element that I wish Sonic games could capture these days, and that’s in how they handled the addition of Tails & Knuckles as unique playable characters, but not completely game breaking/radically changing unique. (Yeah tails was in Sonic 2, and could be the only player, but he couldn’t fly solo then, and that proves to really set him apart in S3&K).

    Something Sonic Team seems to try to emphasize these years is that Sonic is so fast compared even to his comrades, and yet these games showed us that Tails and Knuckles were fast as well (Maybe not Sonic fast, but fast enough), and that they could handle any level Sonic could while bringing unique opportunities to both level design and gameplay.

    These days it seems anyone other than Sonic (and a little, tiny bit Shadow) is doomed to having some radically different play style be it treasure hunting, throwing bombs, whatever. And when they do get put in a Sonic style setting, its for a short time. I would have loved for Generations give Tails and Knuckles a crack at those modern and classic levels, and to have the levels get designed to support both of them as well. (Note, I haven’t gotten to play Runners yet, so I’ll withhold any judgement on that one).

    Say what you will about Sonic Heroes, but I at least loved that it put Knux and Tails on Sonic style levels that felt like they actually needed them. Heck if I could have a version of Heroes where all the characters were available individually, and could each complete all the levels because of their unique abilities providing alternate routes, I’d probably buy that. (I know Sonic Adventure had some of Tails in Sonic levels, but they felt mostly like chopped up pieces of the full level.)

    Anyways great retrospective, I found it enjoyable.

  10. I’ve been trying to find time to replay the classics again on my Genesis, but school is such a b**ch! When I do get to it though, I will certainly enjoy every minute of it.

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